If you asked Pittsburghers to name their city's greatest street, most would probably choose Grant Street, for its monumental office and government buildings. Or Grandview Avenue, for the vistas it offers from atop Mount Washington. Few would choose Roslyn Place. Only slightly more would ever have heard of it.
Located just off Ellsworth Avenue near S. Aiken Avenue in Shadyside, Roslyn Place is a cul-de-sac that measures just 250 feet long. Only 18 homes in the whole city can include it in their return address. But this otherwise easy-to-overlook street may actually be the city's most distinctive contribution to urban street patterns. (Unless you count "parking chairs," of course.) That's because, for all anyone can tell, it's the only still-usable street in the United States to use wood as a paving material.
You may be imagining some sort of giant boardwalk, made up of planks of wood. But, in fact, the surface is made up of wooden blocks that look much like bricks. Walking past Roslyn Place, the wood you're much more likely to notice is the statuesque sycamore trees that shade the street.
Wood was once commonly used in road construction: In the 1800s, Pittsburgh and other cities were served by "plank roads," toll roads that consisted of boards laid end-to-end along a narrow track. But by the time Roslyn Place was built -- in 1913, by an engineer and architect named Thomas Rodd -- using wood went against the grain. Lumber was expensive, and the demand for paving material too great.
In fact, it's unclear why Rodd chose to use wood on his dead-end street. Over at the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which has dubbed Roslyn Place a historic landmark, one theory is that in an age when horse-drawn carriages were popular modes of transit, wood dampened sound better than stone or brick. Another possibility, suggested by the PH&LF's archivist Al Tannler, was that Rodd thought a wooden street would "help to make the place look quaintly anachronistic."
If that worked in the World War I era, it works even better now. Writer Allan Jacobs included Roslyn Place in his 1993 book Great Streets -- where it sits beside chapters on the Grand Canal of Venice and the Avenue des Champs-Elyseés in Paris. To be fair, Roslyn got a boost: Jacobs himself lived on the street. But he makes a convincing case that the street suggests a more graceful approach to urban living -- one which isn't dominated by asphalt and the automobile.
"It would be hard to build another Roslyn Place today," Jacobs writes. "There's no off-street parking, the street is too narrow ... and the houses are too close together. ... But those problems are really positive attributes. No off-street parking means no curb breaks or driveways to interrupt the street and [sidewalk], and no blank garage doors to deaden the houses." And Roslyn's small, intimate scale, he adds offers "community, or at least the chance of community."
Part of the street's charm, he adds, is its unusual paving. "From time to time, people in some office downtown ... decide to repave the street. Residents successfully resist: People know a great street when they live on it." But they are among the few who do: A 2004 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette account could find no other mention of a street still actively using wood in the United States, and neither could I.
Jacobs does acknowledge that the surface has some shortcomings -- "Wood block can be slippery in winter and, over the years, becomes uneven." But the same could be said of pretty much every other road surface in Western Pennsylvania. In fact, one resident tells Jacobs, Roslyn Place went roughly seven decades without needing to be resurfaced. (Predictably, when the city did resurface the street, it botched the job: According to the 2004 P-G story, road crews had to fix their repair of the road just a few months after finishing it.)
Maybe somebody ought to get word to PennDOT? Not only does wood-block seem to last, but using it could turn our highways into an even bigger roller-coaster ride than they already are.